Great Books That Turned Me Off From Reading

The above picture is from Kelly Butcher’s excellent blog, the Lemme Library.  Note the second name on that checkout list!1  Yesterday I had the honor of teaming up with fellow Abrams’ author Tom Angleberger to write a guest post for Kelly on a topic very dear to my heart: What to do when you hate a classic

It’s a lively conversation and definitely worth checking out if you’ve ever felt at odds with the critical mass.  (Tom may or may not refer to Peter Pan as “dreck!”)  In the post, I mention three books that I was forced to read in school that turned me off from reading:  The Yearling by Marjorie Rawlings, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, and Romeo & Juliet by … some dude … can’t remember his name …

Anyway, a few readers expressed a desire to learn what about those particular books bothered me so much.  I thought I’d take a crack at answering the question here! 

First off, a disclaimer:  I am not saying these books are actually bad, only that my experiences with them were negative.  But the fact remains that they did more damage than good. 

The Yearling – I read this book in seventh grade Language Arts class.  Nothing too pointed in my criticism beyond the fact that this book had nothing to do with me or my life.  By that age, I was enough of a reader to know that there were many wonderful, exciting books out there.  But instead of reading Ray Bradbury or SE Hinton, we were stuck with this story of a farm kid and his pet deer.  What was the damage?  The choice of text led me to believe that great stories (which I read at home) and English Literature (which I read in class) were completely unrelated things.

Romeo & Juliet – I read this play in grade ten.  There is a common problem in pop culture where Romeo & Juliet is peddled as a love story when it’s actually a cautionary tale.  Even as a young adolescent, I could tell that whatever Romeo and Juliet had going on between them was not real love — certainly not an ideal to aspire to.  And yet the play was presented to me as some kind of timeless love story.  I remember reading it and thinking, “If this is Shakespeare’s idea of true love, then he doesn’t really know much about the world.”  What was the damage?  When I later read other Shakespeare plays (Hamlet, Midsummer Night’s Dream), I was unreceptive; I had already made up my mind that this was a writer who had nothing to teach me.2

A Tale of Two Cities – I don’t know what makes educators think that this book is a good introduction to Dickens — yes, it’s short, but it is also devoid of Boz’ trademark humor and charm.  I read this in my junior year of high school, and I hated every word.3  I already knew and liked some of Dickens more kid-friendly stories (Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol), and I deduced wrongly from Tale of Two Cities that this was what happened when authors wrote “serious” books … they got boring.  I suppose a positive effect of this experience was that it drove me to further embrace children’s literature as the sort of stories I wanted to write!4

So those were a few classic books with which I really struggled.  I’ve since gone back and re-read the latter two, and I have to say they were better the second time around.  I’m not sure whether a different teacher could have gotten me to respond to the books or whether I was simply too young.

My wife and I were discussing this topic yesterday, and I asked her what the solution might be. She said the best thing for her in high school was a (wonderful) English teacher who alternated between fun and challenging texts:  students read one difficult assigned book, and then they read one book of their choosing (from a list).  Seems like a nice carrot-and-stick compromise!

  1. I would be lying if I said the thought of Peter Nimble checking out a book also read by Lucy Pevensie and Edward Tulane didn’t make me cry a bit!
  2. Of course I could not have been more wrong on this point — I owe a tremendous debt to both Julie Taymor and Niel Gaiman for setting me straight!
  3. Looking back now, I think I struggled because I lacked the necessary historical context.  To really appreciate this book, you need to have a sense of both the French Revolution and the Victorian social reform movement — only then can you start to understand why Dicken’s English readers would be interested in things that transpired half a century earlier in a different country.
  4. It took me even longer to come around to Dickens; I didn’t start reading him again until I went to graduate school and met an pretty young Victorianist with pigtails!

16 Comments Leave a Comment

  • Brian F. says:

    For me, it was HUCK FINN. I’ve since developed an appreciation for Twain but I still twitch when I see this book on the shelf. Now, I like it only because I want to spite the people who want to ban it.

  • As an English/Lang Arts teacher (and also a writer), I agree: at times the classics are a turn off for students because many of the classics are turn offs for me. My own first experience with TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is living proof because I saw nothing special in this book the way it was presented to me. Now, when I teach classics, I focus on what it says to us today and how it does relate to us today. The relationships, the lessons we learn from characters’ choices, thinking of a ‘now’ situation that’s similar to the story. Whether students buy into that is up for grabs.

  • Trish says:

    Grapes of Wrath was a spirit-killer for me and it took me years to appreciate how wonderful John Steinbeck’s really is.

  • Trish says:

    * writing

    Sheesh. And I call myself a writer.

  • Adam says:

    My Antonia. Ugggggg…… But part of the problem was that my teacher was obsessed with it. “Here’s a bag of dirt from Willa Cather’s grave.” Yikes. Not many better ways to turn a junior in high school away from a book. Was he engaging us with his enthusiasm?

    But the next year I loved Crime and Punishment and Siddhartha. So who knows?

    I think a big reason we don’t like these books is that we’re not emotionally or intellectually ready for them, as Trish alludes to above. High schoolers should be reading great YA books, not necessarily the classics.

  • DDW says:

    Don’t remember much of anything from grade school, except that my fourth grade teacher read us The Hobbit. In high school I pretty much hated absolutely everything they made us read. The one exception was Lord of the Flies. Love Lord of the Flies. 1984, All Quiet on the Western Front: snooze fest. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: loathed it. I vaguely remember some Vonnegut book I didn’t care for either, but can’t remember which one. For me though it wasn’t that big a deal, because I was already a hardcore reader from a very young age. People like us end up at worst with a reverse snobbery against anything claiming to be “Literature” and scorn for those who think reading is supposed to be some sort of enriching drudgery that must be endured to make one’s self an intellectual. What upsets me is the impact all those horrible choices had on the kids who didn’t read for fun, I fear most of them are lost as readers forever.

    Of course lots of people hate Lord of the Flies. I don’t think there are any choices that are going to be “safe” from turning someone off to reading. I think letting kids choose something that their ready for is essential, schools shouldn’t worry so much about what the kids are reading as long as they are. (Outside of history or other subjects where specific material must be covered, of course.)

  • DDW says:

    they’re… one really should proofread one’s comments.

  • Yukari M. says:

    On the eve of Hobbit Day I must admit that I detested The Hobbit when I read it in middle school, and it turned me off to reading any other Tolkien book. My son just read it for his 6th grade summer reading list and, of course, enjoyed it. To each his own.

    I have to agree that many of the classics are lost on younger readers (and maybe a lot of adults) because they 1) have no context as to the book’s significance historically, 2) without historical context sometimes it’s hard to create personal connections to the text, and 3) I hate to say it, but the books are often not taught very well in schools … or maybe that was just my experience.

    Anyway, I have to just chuckle and mention that I *love* that the commenters here edit their comments. My kind of people!

  • The problem is, kids are all different, right? I loved The Yearling, and I still remember how transported I was reading it (at 11 or 12). So much depends on what the teacher can do to open the book up, I guess. And you know, I don’t really believe that anybody is permanently damaged by reading a book they don’t like. You want to talk permanent scarring? Let me out on the subject of enforced field hockey.

  • Roboseyo says:

    “I owe a tremendous debt to both Julie Taymor and Niel Gaiman for setting me straight!”

    I still have Titus on my hard drive.

    The weird thing for me is that The Great Gatsby is both the book that got me OUT of the novel, and then also got me back IN (even though it’s actually a novella) – I read it in a sleepy daze in my first year, because there was a quiz the next day, and got through it, but got NOTHING out of it, except a feeling that there was more in there which I’d missed, and that frustrated me.

    Then, between my fourth and fifth year of university, I read it again for pleasure, and had the time to soak in the gorgeous language, and got back into novels again.

    When I was eleven, I read Treasure Island, which taught me that many books take a while to build up steam – the first seventy pages of it or so were a tough slog for me then, but it got really good later on. Then, I had the same problem with Lord of The Rings, enough that I put the book down for ten years before finishing it.

    The other book in my “slow start, awesome finish” – Crime and Punishment, which I’ve never been able to finish without an eight month break between starting it and finishing it.

    I think Trish and Adam are bang-on that young people should read books written for them (though bright young people should have the option to skip ahead)… with the addendum that what worked for young people of a previous generation might not work for young people of a subsequent generation.

    Gail Shepherd, if this were facebook, I would “like” your comment.

  • Tom Angleberger says:

    For me it was Peter Nimble….

    Hee Hee,i couldn’t resist.
    Huck Finn was one of the very few times when I failed to complete a school assignment. Faked my way through the test on it, though. Tried to read it again recently and got even less far into it.

  • I definitely think the teacher influences the book’s reception. The teacher who introduced me to ROMEO & JULIET presented it completely opposite the way your teacher presented it. My teacher framed it as a tragedy of youth, and he teased out all the ways that the impetuousness of their age led to a terrible conclusion that could have been avoided. As a 15-year-old, I probably could have been offended by this. But it really had an impact on me, and it has stuck with me all these years. I still refer to this one lesson every so often to this day — literally, I brought it up with a friend last month!

    But sometimes, even a great teacher can’t overcome the personal disconnect that a reader feels from a book, like you and THE YEARLING. I had a wonderful teacher senior year of high school, and she’s the reason why I and all of my classmates simultaneously fell in love with Virginia Woolf’s TO THE LIGHTHOUSE senior year of high school. That’s not a book every 17-year-old would appreciate on their own! But I also read MADAME BOVARY in her class, and I just could not get into it. My teacher helped me appreciate the craftmanship of the writing, but man, I really hated that Emma Bovary!

  • So many awesome comments … most in the form of great confessions!

    Tom & Brian F: you two are kindred spirits, it seems, in your HUCK FINN troubles. But tell me, Brian, what’s your take on PETER PAN? (A book that is fast becoming my litmus test for bookhater lunacy!)

    I also agree with Gail Shepherd that the “damage” is often minimal. This same question actually came up in the Lemme Library post: is it really a terrible thing if a student doesn’t *love* every novel they read in class? After all, kids aren’t expected to freak out over every algebra or history lesson. I don’t have an answer to this question, but it does give some food for thought.

  • DDW says:

    “is it really a terrible thing if a student doesn’t *love* every novel they read in class?”

    No, but I’d say it is a pretty sad thing if they don’t enjoy *any* of them. If the only experiences they ever have of reading fiction are unpleasant ones. Calling it “damage” might be a bit silly, they’re not going to be reduced to quivering lumps of flesh rocking themselves in the corner of the cave. Can you function properly in society and even thrive without a love of reading? Of course. But given the choice I suspect most english teachers would prefer their students come away from their education with a love of reading rather than a loathing of it. I think there are plenty of topics one could discuss without everyone in class needing to have read the same book. A mix of assigned texts and individual choice ought to be workable.

  • Yukari M. says:

    Thanks, Jonathan, for blogging about this: my husband and I had a nice talk about it last night as we were going to bed. Something, admittedly, we don’t get to do very often (we too often end up talking about our kids). Since we went to the same high school we talked about the texts we read, liked, disliked, and couldn’t remember. It was a nice trip down memory lane but also made me think harder about my own Language Arts education and the one my son will receive in the next few years.

  • Marie Taber says:

    Peter Nimble wouldn’t check out a book…Hello…He’s blind.

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